A wild lion is a scrappy thing. A fierce, disheveled, fly-bitten beast with battle scars from nose to tail and a matted, grimy mane. This is a rug you don’t want on your living room floor. But the beast has been cleaned up and rebranded in one of the greatest wildlife marketing stunts of all time.
Since humans painted them on a cave wall in France 30,000 years ago, lions have populated our imagination. Despite being extinct in Britain and Europe for thousands of years, they have grown in stature through myths and legends.
Tens of centuries ago, kings and conquerors of Britain and Europe adopted the mighty lion as their symbol on military shields, tunics and crests, a form of marketing if you will: Look on us in awe. Use of the symbol eventually extended to the nobility who displayed lions “rampant” and fierce, often human like, clutching axes and swords or wearing crowns.

©Wim Vorster

This adulation – or should we say, lionisation – wasn’t unique to Europe. Though they are not native to China, lions were given to emperors as gifts and sometimes imported via the silk road as far back as 200BC. Those few lions left such an impression on the Chinese that they are now part of their iconography and pageantry. Lion statues abound and the famous Lion Dance imitates the beast as a symbol of power, wisdom and good fortune.
Today, we see them on national and institutional coats of arms, sporting emblems, company logos, clothing brands and family crests – even the ignoble ones. If there is one creature we aspire to, it is the lion, king of all creatures.
Of course, identifying with the king is no guarantee of prowess. But the aspiration is there, and in our minds, the king has remained indomitable. Until now.

Top: Lions painted in Chauvet Cave in France, dating 30,000 years ago.
Middle: Richard the Lionheart (King of England 1189-99) carrying a shield emblazoned with the three lions that make up the royal arms of England. Illustrated by N.C.Wyeth.
Bottom left: Chinese New Year Lion Dance. ©Bob Jagendorf
Bottom right: A Chinese lion statue, Forbidden City, Beijing. ©CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In South Africa a thriving industry makes it affordable to blow a lion to kingdom come. According to Campaign Against Canned Hunting, there are about 160 lion breeders in South Africa, many of whom supply lions to hunting operators or facilitate hunts on their own land. Various estimates put the number of captive lions anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000(2)(4). That’s more than double the number of lions in the South African wild, estimated at 2,743.
In total there are between 23,000 and 39,000 wild African lions left on the entire continent(1). So, using the most conservative estimates, captive-bred lions would make up one fifth of the entire African lion population. Breeding lions for hunting is clearly good business. And it’s getting better. 4062 lion trophies (more than South Africa’s entire wild population) were exported from South Africa between 2007 and 2011, compared to 1830 trophies between 2002 and 2006.

lion-trophy-exportsThe USA is by far the largest market for trophies. The key drivers seem to be a large, wealthy hunting population and a colourful history of African big game hunting featuring iconic characters such as President Theodore Roosevelt who’s year-long African safari is the stuff of legends. In 1909, he and his son bagged over 500 big game, including 17 lion, 11 elephant and 20 rhinos.
Author Ernest Hemingway added to the allure with his 1933 safari, publishing evocative stories about men ushered into manhood by slaying African beasts. He was a romantic character with whom a vast number of American men still identify.

The American hunter has weaved his way into African hunting history despite never belonging there

The American hunter has even weaved his way into African hunting history despite never belonging there. In the film ‘The Ghost and the Darkness’, based on the true story of the man-killing Tsavo lions, “famous” American hunter Charles Remington (played by Michael Douglas) is commissioned to hunt the beasts. But he is an entirely fictional character, conveniently named after one of America’s largest arms manufacturers.
In ‘Out of Africa’ Robert Redford retains his American accent despite playing the role of Englishman, Denys Finch Hatton. In one crucial scene, he and Meryl Streep (playing Karen Blixen) come across a pair of lions. The female charges. Streep drops her with a single shot. But the male attacks from another direction and Redford fires both barrels. The king obliterated, Redford takes charge, commanding: ‘Reload now.” They wait, rifles at the ready. Once the threat is over, they lower their rifles and Redford notices the recoil from Streep’s rifle has split her lip. So he unwinds his sweaty neckerchief and dabs it on the bloody wound. It’s hot, heroic stuff.

Left: Theodore Roosevelt poses with a lion during his year-long hunting safari in 1909.
Right: Ernest Hemingway posing with a lion during his 1933 safari.

Today, killing wild lions is an expensive exercise involving many days of hunting with no guarantee of success. In data collected between 2009 and 2012, the average cost of a lion hunt in Tanzania was US$76,116 lasting over 12 days with an average success rate of 61.3%. In South Africa you could bag a lion in 3 days with a 99.2% success rate at half the price, or less. A minimum quote in 2012 was US$19,472.(1)
So why the huge difference in price? For one thing, Tanzania abides by the hunting principle of ‘fair chase’. The lion has a relatively fair chance because of the size of its range. Here, lions are hunted in hunting blocks that average 1753 km². In Zambia they average almost 6,000km². That makes for a long, difficulty hunt. By all accounts, the lions hunted in these countries have lived in the wild all of their lives and are able to use their well honed instincts to escape from hunters.
In contrast the hunting blocks in South Africa average 49.9km². Secondly, the vast majority of lions hunted in South Africa are captive-bred, often hand-raised and accustomed to humans. Thirdly, they are only exposed to the “wild” for a short period of time before they are hunted in what is known in hunting circles as ‘put and take.’

PresentationIn fact the South African Predator Association stipulates a minimum of 10km² hunting area for captive-bred lions. The legally required release period for captive bred lions in the Free State Province and North West Province is 30 and 4 days respectively (FS and NW are where most captive-bred lions are hunted)(2). Sounds like canned hunting, doesn’t it?
In response to previous outcries against canned hunting, a 2007 ruling instituted by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism stipulated that animals be allowed to roam free for 24 months before they are fair game for hunters. But this was overturned by the high court after an appeal by lion breeders. And so the business thrives. By 2010 the number of captive-bred lion trophies exported from South Africa was double the amount of wild lion trophies from all other countries in Africa put together.


Price and a 99.2% guarantee are not the only attractive things for hunters. Captive-bred lions yield larger, better looking trophies. Consistent food supply during growth helps achieve this, as does selective breeding which is a widespread phenomenon on South African game ranches, so there is little doubt it is practiced by lion breeders. Of Safari Club International’s record book of trophies in 2009, South African skull sizes top the list.(1)
Selective breeding has also lead to the increase in more ‘exotic’ variants such as white lions, for which hunters will pay a premium. Clearly it’s not just Siegfried and Roy who are in the market for a platinum blonde.
They are indeed attractive, enigmatic creatures, and perhaps one of the greatest evolutions of the industry has been for lion breeders to allow tourists behind the fence. Some of the largest breeding operations also run tourism programs (with no obvious connection to hunting) whereby lion cubs can be petted and visitors can walk with juvenile lions. The lion petting and walking industry has flourished, with most of the tourists under the impression they are contributing to conservation by doing so – the operators’ spin is that the lions are bred for release into the wild or for research programs that benefit wild lions. Alongside tourists are young, impressionable “voluntourists” who assist the operators by looking after the lions and tourists, often paying for the privilege.

A juvenile lion jumps for bait tossed by a guide during a lion walk with tourists at Ukutula Lodge & Lion Research Centre, South Africa.
©Simon Espley

But few of them consider where all those lions go once they get too old to walk with tourists. Inevitably many of them are laundered into the hunting industry via a slick and secretive network of agents and front companies. These additional revenue streams must be appealing if you consider the overheads of these large operations.
But for captive-bred hunts, SAPA stipulates:
– Minimum interaction with the human environment from birth.
– No hand rearing.
– General “hands off” management techniques with regard to feeding, husbandry, medical care and environmental enrichment.
– No trade in human imprinted animals.(2)

The reason for this is two fold: A lion that is familiar with humans will be a much easier target for a hunter, and a lion with less fear of humans will be more likely to attack if wounded.
The ethical issues involved in put-and-take hunting have been widely scrutinised and led to some hunting organisations distancing themselves from the practice. Safari Club International now differentiates between lions hunted behind fences and ‘free-range’ lions. In effect, if you’ve shot a lion anywhere in South Africa, no matter how big it is, it will be categorised as an ‘Estate’ lion. As prominent American hunter, Craig Boddington put it: “I’m shown a picture of a magnificent lion, so resplendent in mane that it is extremely unlikely that it’s a wild lion. Of course it’s a South African lion, so now there is little doubt about the actual circumstances.”(3)

A typical day at Ukutula Lodge & Lion Research Centre, South Africa.
©Simon Espley

Backing up the trade in lions for hunting is the dubious trade in lion bone. Chinese manufacturers of tiger bone wine, believed by many Asians to have strong medicinal properties, reached a hurdle when trade in tiger bones was banned in 1993. But the sale of lion bones is not prohibited in China. Now the words “Panthera Leo” are printed on the wine lable, indicating that lion bones are used. Research shows that the number of lion bones exported from South Africa has grown in recent years, indicating breeders must be capitalising on the market(2). And so the commoditisation of the king of beasts evolves and changes form to meet demand and supply.

Commoditisation of the king of beasts evolves and changes form to meet demand and supply

One argument is that the revenue from captive-bred lion hunting benefits conservation, but indications are that the trickle down to genuine conservation efforts is marginal compared to the revenue that regular tourists bring in, often just to observe lions in the wild. It makes sense that a wild lion, with thousands of photographic tourists paying to see it over its comparatively long lifetime, will bring in more revenue than a lion bred to be hunted by one person.
Another argument is that captive-bred hunting alleviates the pressure on wild lions. But wild lions are under far greater threat from increasing loss of habitat due to human population growth and land utilisation. Captive-bred lion hunting will not put a stop to that. In addition there appears to be offtake of wild lions from some African countries to supply new genetic material for South African captive breeding operations.
Ultimately we are not at risk of losing the species, as long as there is a market for them. Like cattle, they will be bred and they will thrive. But this is about saving a king, not a cow.
We need to protect all wild African lions and the wilderness that they depend on, or the creature that we put on the throne so long ago will have no dominion. He will cease to be king. He’ll be a rug for us to walk over and only live in our myths and legends, a reminder of what we once believed ourselves to

(1) South African Journal of Wildlife Research Vol. 42, No. 1, April 2012
(2) South African Predator Association
(3) Sports Afield
(4) Campaign Against Canned Hunting


Sign up to get our magazine stories
and most popular blog posts every week

  • S.w. Tsang

    Sad, shame & unnatural !

  • Angela Wigmore

    I knew about ‘canned-hunting’ and find it deplorable, no matter how large the ‘hunting blocks’. Well actually I abhor hunting altogether, no matter what ‘conservationists’ say about its necessity etc etc… in a controlled environment blah blah…I just do not understand (nor do I want to) the mentality of people who get a kick from killing something. But this depravity, in the name of greed, in South Africa is utterly appalling and unforgiveable. I wont shed a tear if any of these ‘entrepreneurs’ are massacred by radical black South Africans or anyone else. Thank you for highlighting this amoral behaviour – please ensure your message is broadcast wordwide!

    • A South African

      “I wont shed a tear if any of these ‘entrepreneurs’ are massacred by radical black South Africans or anyone else”.
      Any you claim a position of high moral ground?

      • Angela Wigmore

        Indeed I do, and it appears that you are one of the people I despise.

        • Angela Wigmore

          Especially since you are too afraid to state who you are!

          • A South African

            I am a nature lover, and a South African. I do not hunt, let alone breed animals to hunt. However I am a deeply concerned about my country and violence of any nature, and find your stated support of violence against humans as abhorrent as abuse of animals. If you wish to take up a cause, do it on a basis without resorting to comments such as you have made.

          • Angela Wigmore

            I do not support violence against humans and nor did I say I ”wished” anything evil against these people. I merely said I would not shed a tear ”if” something were to befall them! Happy now?

          • Gerhard Oosthuizen

            I am afraid that does not fly. If you don’t care about human life regardless of the disregard you feel for them, without educating yourself on the issue at hand, let alone implicating Black Africans as murderers, I am afraid there is little difference between you and the people you deplore.

    • Valerie Lusaka

      I totally agree with you!

      • Angela Wigmore

        Hello Valerie. Thank you for bothering to reply to my comment. I am trying to get this on Facebook but am rather an amateur so don’t know if my post has gone through. I have asked a friend, who is much more computer/internet savvy than me, to post this article but I do hope you will as well.

        • Valerie Lusaka

          I do not understand that this barbaric practice is still allowed in South Africa!

    • Denise Putt

      They’re not conservationists, any of them, Angela. They are sick apologists for sick profiteers from sick-minded, abhorrent individuals. Nothing less.

      • Angela Wigmore

        Well said Denise.

    • Gerhard Oosthuizen

      Massacred by radical black South Africans? Are you for real? Where did it go wrong for you? It might have been a good thing for you to do a bit of research to know more about conservation, hunting, economics and the media. However, making a statement like this probably shows that you are a tad too presumptuous to learn anything that requires effort.

  • Herman

    I would like to make a comment on the statement “Tanzania abides by the hunting principle of fair chase” and “Lions has a relatively fair chance because of the size of its range”. Now this all sounds good, but what realy happens is the following. The Pro hunter or the client shoots an animal like a Zebra or even a hippo. This animal is then left for a while till the smell is quite strong. In an area where lions are to be found a “mashan” or elevated hide is constructed. the dead animal is the dragged arround so as to leave a sent trail. Then the carcass is tied to a tree and the hunter keeps checking the hide till the lions start feeding on the bait.The hunter then enters the hide and shoots the lion over the bait. So in the end is this “fair chase”?
    To save the “Wild” lion genes canned hunting might be the only way no matter how wrong dep;orable this might sound.

    • DLBerry

      Unfortunately they pull the best male lions from the wild gene pool to continue with this breeding and killing game. There are not enough male lions in the wild to sustain the population growth let alone the species. Like elephants their days are numbered unless drastic changes happen in Africa.

    • Chris Glisson

      Quite correct, Herman.
      Open the vids in my petition and see “fair chase”……..

    • Anton Crone

      Herman, did you not consider that if situations like the one you describe occur, it might be a consequence of the cheaper, quicker, more successful captive-bred lion hunting industry putting pressure on wild hunting operations?

  • ziggypop

    Canned hunting is depraved behavior to the nth degree. A pox upon these vile places and the killers who pretend they are hunters.

    • Deanna Jolly

      Agree! Sad indeed. Shameful and pitiful.

  • BSzasz

    Are there any studies that actually examine the profits taken by these lion breeding and canned hunting operations, in terms where the funds go and how much goes directly to conservation? I don’t think those figures should include the employment of people from native communities, unless those communities actually have ownership of the business venture. Minimum wage employment as trackers, drivers, waiters, cleaners should not be included as conservation through supporting local communities. It seems to me that the bulk of the profits go out of the community, or at least to select and wealthy individuals?

    • Anton Crone

      Various estimates put the financial return going directly into conservation at between 3% and 6%.

  • Barbara Moritsch

    Shut them down. Period.

  • Michael Schwartz

    The article references the USA being the biggest market for trophies. Texas, being one of the largest states (in population and land mass) is filled to the brim with wealthy lion hunting exhibitionists. What’s more depressing is according to a study done by BigCatRescue, there are over 500 canned hunting ranches there alone, many of whom breed the now extinct-in-the-wild scimitar horned oryx.

    As in Africa, the problem ultimately boils down to historical sociological attitudes as this article explored. People in Texas and elsewhere are more interested in hunting the animal than enjoying it alive. And since they’re willing to pay top dollar for the opportunity, ranches and preserves in the US and abroad will charge extortionate prices whilst claiming the money helps preserve the endangered animal they’re breeding. Unfortunately the money only helps preservation to an extent because of current attitudes. Imagine how much more revenue the tourism industry would bring in if there was a global shift in outlook. What needs to happen is a hard push at educating the younger generations. Once that happens, the business of canned hunting will no longer be lucrative.

  • Alysaa

    It just makes me sick how little consideration is given to these animals. As everyone knows their days are numbered. I can’t understand why the people that hunt all these animals can not see the damage they are doing. One of these days there will be nothing left to hunt. People are so greedy and cruel! I think we should hunt the people that have no care for the animals that suffer for their own pleasure!

  • Mwana

    Ban trophy hunting in South Africa, period. Remove the firearms from the psycopaths and send them for serious treatment immediately.

  • Judy

    Canned hunting is a disgusting and despicable practice and South Africans should be ashamed that they allow it in their country. Just as I am ashamed that it is allowed in my country — USA. The people who participate in this deplorable activity have brains the size of a pea.

  • mmre

    Excellent article, with which I wholeheartedly agree. However not all lion encounter tourism is breeding for canned hunting. In south africa there are certainly many of these deceitful places but it should be noted that ALERT in Zimbabwe is not one of them, but rather a true conservation effort with multiple stage reintroduction processes that have successfully reintroduced wild lions into areas where the lion population is under severe pressure or even locally extinct.

    • Anton Crone

      Thanks for your input. The article does not claim that all lion encounter tourism operations are breeding for canned hunting. Be that as it may, there are serious issues with lion encounters. Take hunting out of the equation and just consider the aspects of cub petting and lion walking. Effectively it breaks down the boundaries between humans and a wild creature. It is depleting the natural fear and respect we have for lions, and visa versa. It is the lions wild nature that attracts tourists to the national parks and reserves to view lions in their natural, wild roles. It is that tourism revenue which benefits wild lion conservation, not the revenue from lion encounters. With reference to ALERT, please read this:

    • Frans Gesell

      mmre, ALERT has a very good PR team and is really convincing everyone about how good they are. However, in their 12 years of existence they haven’t introduced 1 lion back in the wild succesfully! Where are all the cubs gone that were born in this period of time? Why keeping the programme up for so long while not being succefull?

  • Canned ‘Hunting’ – the act of shooting a creature that has had human contact from birth and does not see humans as a danger. No skill required, the lions are in a controlled area and are usually sedated!

    With regards to Trophy Hunting, I shall use the words of the late Lawrence Anthony aka The Elephant Whisperer;

    “I have never had a problem with hunting for the pot. Every living thing on this planet hunts for sustenance one way of the other,
    from the mighty microbe upwards…But hunting for pleasure, killing only for the thrill of it, is to me anathema. I have met plenty of
    trophy hunters. They are, of course, all naturalists; they all know and love the bush; and they all justify their action in conservation
    speak, peppered with all the right buzz words.

    The truth is, though, that they harbour a hidden impulse to kill, which can only be satisfied by the violent death of another life form
    by their hand. They will go to inordinate lengths to satisfy, and above all, justify, this apparently irresistible urge.

    Besides, adding to the absurdity of their claims, there is not an animal alive that is even vaguely a match for today’s weaponry. The
    modern high-powered hunting rifle with telescopic sights puts paid to any argument about sportsmanship.”

    Both types of ‘hunter’ are very definitely psychopathic!!

  • paisah davies

    Practical post . BTW , if anyone is wanting a CA BCIA 8016 , my colleagues filled out and faxed a template document here